The other day I had been to the Indian High Commission in London. I had heard horror stories about the chaos and lack of order at our national HQ in the UK that I was pleasantly surprised at how organised everything was. I took my ticket, found myself a seat and got waiting. It was a long wait and as you do on when you have time weighing heavy on your hands, I got talking to the lady next to me. Mrs. Kapoor had come to the UK as a newly wed in 1969, surrendered her Indian passport when she took British citizenship in 1975 and like me, was there to get her Overseas Citizen of India card. Her siblings and other relatives were passing away regularly and she reckoned, with all the resignation of the frequently bereaved, that she could not be hanging about for a visa to go to India when she was required urgently there and that she needed a permanent visa that an overseas Indian citizenship accorded.
It was only when I had settled into my seat that I realised that I had not eaten anything since morning. Not wanting to risk being away when my token number was called, I decided to go hungry. For some strange reason (most likely hunger), I told Mrs. Kapoor how I had missed dinner the previous night and was too rushed in the morning to have anything more than a cup of tea. Now, she began with a voice of one who has been there and done precisely that, you wouldn't have forgotten to feed your children if you had brought them with you, would you? No, I wouldn't have. I would have packed food for eight children, even though I only have a couple. Shouldn't you be looking after yourself?, she continued to admonish in that tone that, in an instant took away 33 years of my life. After ensuring that I was not diabetic (if I was, I dare not admit to her for fear of more reprimand), she proceeded to fish out of her bag a packet of dry crackers and a small bar of chocolate.
Eat now, she ordered briskly brushing away my feeble protests like the crumbs from the crackers. Tentatively I took a single biscuit. More, she cried thrusting a few more from the packet into my now unresisting hands. Food is good only when it is shared, she noted as she bit off a cracker.
A more Indian gesture could not have been made. That of offering food to strangers. I used to see it happen regularly on trains in India. I remember how for many years, my brother would go hungry on long distance trains because he used to feel awkward about eating his food alone and at the same time, he was too shy to offer it others. On a particularly bad day several years ago in Bombay, a kindly neighbour I had only known briefly, offered a whole box of 'kozhukattais' that she had made earlier and thus lifted my spirits instantly. This compulsion to feed others seems ingrained in Indians.
And there it was, my epiphany. Mrs. Kapoor and I, two Indians who had surrendered our Indian passports in favour of a British one. And yet carried on being very, very Indian in a tiny corner of London. I bit into the chocolate square that was being offered to me. It never tasted sweeter.